It is impossible not to admire Mona Prince's 2008 novel, “Inni Uhaddithuka li-Tara,” (I Speak to You so that You May See) translated by Raphael Cohen as “So You May See” and published by the AUC Press this spring.
Skeptical readers may find the book’s free-love scenarios improbable. They may be put off by the rocky opening pages and the absence of a clear setting. A few may even be indifferent to the high-voltage charm of Ayn, the novel’s narrator and protagonist. Nonetheless, it would be impossible not to doff one’s cap in admiration of the book’s sheer derring-do.
Mona Prince, who was born in 1970, is an associate professor of English at Suez Canal University. Although she draws upon international trends, Prince’s novel resembles other recent Egyptian fiction in that the self-conscious, sometimes fragmented narrative focuses on the “small” world of human psychology, rather than the nation’s “big issues.” The narrator-protagonist states numerous times, “I attempted, as much as I could, to keep away from any social or political context that might ruin the sense of love.”
The novel is told as if it were a true, passionate love story written by Ayn about her feelings for Ali. This encourages readers to believe that “So You May See” is a “real” memoir, and that the action within really happened. The novel, particularly in the beginning, is slowed by patches of free verse, which can be jolting when translated to English. But the book’s confessional and open-hearted tone keeps the reader engaged. Once the relationship between Ali and Ayn is established, the action moves quickly from a content relationship to the couple’s numerous breaks and reconciliations.
“So You May See” is set almost entirely in Egypt, yet the sights, smells and sounds of Cairo are virtually absent from the novel. Only when Ayn is in the Western Desert or at the Red Sea does the setting affect the action. The same can be said of the characters. Outside of the main character, Ayn, only foreigners have an effect on the book’s progress. Ayn’s lover is Moroccan. Her only apparent living relative is a nonagenarian Russian. The other significant characters are Moroccan, French, German, Austrian, Corsican and Korean.
Ayn thus stands for all of Egypt. But it also seems that, in order to take the dive into complete personal freedom, Ayn has to be cut off from her countrymen. The presence of a significant Egyptian character might have halted the whole project, telling the narrator that her actions and affairs were simply impossible.
On its face, “So You May See” is indeed impossible. It follows Ayn as she plumbs the depths of her love for Ali without social institutions, approval, or any sort of safety net. Ayn travels alone through the Western Desert, ending up in Algeria without a visa. She sleeps with at least a half-dozen men without regret, and remains free and true to a positive vision of herself.
On its surface, the novel cares little about questions of political and intellectual freedom: censors, politicians and secret police are non-entities here. Although Ayn is a “social researcher” and Ali works in the media, we know little about their work. Ayn focuses instead on personal and emotional freedoms, a quest that leads her to sexual encounters with friends, lovers, criminals and strangers.
Still, while the book’s focus is the intersection of freedom and love, politics continues to hover at its edges. One scene in the Western Desert is particularly arresting: here, Ayn and a group of foreigners come across Bedouins celebrating the attacks on the US that took place in September 2001. Ayn and Ali also fight about Palestine and Iraq. In these arguments, as with her sexuality and her religion, Ayn endeavors to form her own opinions, never bowing to received wisdom.
The book’s epilogue underlines its unreal reality. Ayn says: “I don’t know precisely whether I dedicate this novel to Ali, the man I love, or the imaginary Ali of the novel.” This is fiction, but Mona Prince has gone a long way toward making the impossible story of an Egyptian woman’s total personal, sexual and emotional freedom palpable and real.